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1. Philosophy a general idea or notion that corresponds to some class of entities and that consists of the characteristic or essential features of the class
2. Philosophy
a. the conjunction of all the characteristic features of something
b. a theoretical construct within some theory
c. a directly intuited object of thought
d. the meaning of a predicate
3. Engineering (of a product, esp a car) created as an exercise to demonstrate the technical skills and imagination of the designers, and not intended for mass production or sale
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005


the idea or meaning conveyed by a term. The construction of descriptive or explanatory concepts has a central role within any discipline. Given the absence of tightly articulated explanatory theories in sociology, what is usually referred to as SOCIOLOGICAL THEORY is made up of looser articulations of descriptive and explanatory concepts. See also SENSITIZING CONCEPT.
Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



a form of thought reflecting the essential properties, connections, and relationships of objects and phenomena in their contradiction and development; an idea or system of ideas that generalizes and picks out the objects of a certain class according to certain general features that, in their totality, are specific to the objects. Concepts are “nothing but abbreviations in which we comprehend a great many different sensuously perceptible things according to their common properties” (F. Engels, in K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 20, p. 550). A concept not only picks out the universal but also differentiates objects, their properties, and their relationships, classifying the last according to their differences. For example, the concept “man” reflects both what is essentially common to all people and what distinguishes any given man from everything else.

A distinction is made between concepts in the broad sense and scientific concepts. In the broad sense, a concept formally singles out the common (similar) properties of objects and phenomena and gives them fixed form in words. Scientific concepts reflect essential and necessary properties, and the words and symbols (formulas) that express them are scientific terms. A concept may be analyzed into its intension (content) and extension (range). The extension of a concept refers to the totality of generalized objects reflected in the concept; the intension refers to the totality of essential properties by reference to which the objects in a given concept are generalized and differentiated. For example, the intension of the concept “parallelogram” is a plane, closed geometrical figure bounded by four straight lines and having its opposite sides parallel; its extension is the set of all possible parallelograms. The development of a concept presupposes a change in its intension and extension.

The transition from the sensory level of cognition to logical thought is characterized primarily by a transition from perceptions and representations to reflection in the form of concepts. In its origin, a concept results from a lengthy process of cognitive development and is the concentrated expression of historically acquired knowledge. The formation of a concept is a complex dialectical process, which is carried out by means of comparison, analysis, synthesis, abstraction, idealization, generalization, experimentation, and other methods. A concept is not an image; it is a reflection of reality expressed in words. It acquires its real self in thought and speech only in the elaboration of definitions, in judgments, or as part of a theory.

Above all, a concept differentiates and gives fixed form to the universal, which is obtained by abstracting from all the unique features of individual objects of a given class. However, it does not exclude the particular and individual. The picking out and cognition of the particular and the individual are only possible on the basis of cognition of the universal. A scientific concept represents a unity of the universal, particular, and individual—in other words, it is a concrete universal. At the same time, the universality of a concept pertains not merely to the number of objects in a given class that possess common properties—and not only to a set of homogeneous objects and phenomena—but to the very nature of the intension of the concept, which expresses something essential in the object.

Two opposite lines have emerged in the history of philosophy in regard to the concept: the materialist line, which regards concepts as objective in intension, and the idealist line, which regards concepts as spontaneously arising mental entities absolutely independent of objective reality. For example, the objective idealist G. Hegel viewed concepts as primary, regarding objects and nature as merely their pale copies. Phenomenalism regards the concept as an ultimate reality, which does not refer to objective reality. Some idealists regard concepts as fictions created “by the free play of forces of the spirit” (fictionalism). Neopositivists, reducing concepts to auxiliary logico-linguistic means, deny the objective nature of the intension of concepts.

Dialectical materialism proceeds on the assumption that concepts adequately reflect reality. “Human concepts are subjective in their abstractness, separateness, but objective as a whole, in process, in result, in tendency, in origin” (V. I. Lenin, Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 29, p. 190).

As a reflection of objective reality, concepts are just as plastic as reality itself, of which they represent the generalization. They “must likewise be hewn, treated, flexible, mobile, relative, mutually connected, united in opposites, in order to embrace the world” (ibid, p. 131). A scientific concept is not something finished and complete; on the contrary, it is capable of further development. The basic intension of a concept changes only at specific stages in the development of science. Such changes are qualitative and related to the transition from one level of knowledge to another, to knowledge of the deeper essence of the objects and phenomena subsumed under a concept. The movement of reality can be reflected only in dialectically developing concepts.


In formal logic, a concept is an elementary unit of intellectual activity possessing a certain integrity and stability and abstracted from the verbal expression of this activity. A concept is what is expressed or designated by any meaningful and independent part of speech other than a pronoun; if one goes from the scale of language as a whole to the “microlevel,” it is expressed by a part of a sentence. In treating the problem of concept in formal logic, the resources of three fields of modern knowledge may be employed: (1) general algebra, (2) logical semantics, and (3) mathematical logic.

(1) The formation of a concept may be naturally described in terms of a homomorphism. By partitioning a set of objects that interests us into classes of elements that are “equivalent” in some respect and by ignoring all differences between the elements of a class that do not interest us at a given moment, we obtain a new set—the factor set—that is homomorphic to the original set with respect to the equivalence relation that we have selected. The elements of this new set—equivalence classes—may now be thought of as single, indivisible objects obtained by “gluing together” all the original objects, indistinguishable with respect to the relation that we have chosen into one “lump.” These lumps of images of original objects that have become identified with one another are precisely what we call concepts; they are obtained as a result of the mental replacement of a class of closely related concepts by a single generic concept.

(2) In examining the semantic aspect of the problem of concepts, a distinction must be made between a concept as an abstract object and the word that names the concept; the name or term is a perfectly concrete object. The extension of a concept refers to the same totality of elements, “glued together” into a concept, that has been mentioned above. The intention of a concept refers to the list of criteria or properties that formed the basis for this gluing together. Thus, the extension of the concept is the denotatum of the name which designates it, whereas the content is the idea (sense) that this name expresses. The wider the set of criteria, the narrower the class of objects that satisfy these criteria. Conversely, the less restricted the intension of a concept, the broader its extension. This obvious circumstance is often called the law of inverse relation.

(3) The problems of formal logic associated with the theory of concepts may be expressed by using the well-developed apparatus of the predicate calculus. The semantics of this calculus is such that it is easily used to describe the subject-predicate structure of judgments examined in traditional logic—the subject being that which is spoken of in a sentence expressing a certain judgment, and the predicate being that which is said about the subject. Far-reaching but perfectly natural generalizations are possible here. In particular, more than one subject is allowed in the sentence, as in ordinary grammar; in violation of the rules of grammar, however, complements (objects) can function as subjects. In the role of predicates figure not only predicates proper, including those expressed as compound predicates describing relationships between several subjects, but attributes as well. Adverbial modifiers and adverbial constructions, depending on their grammatical structure, may always be put into one of these two groups (subjects and predicates). A survey of the entire lexicon of any language, “mobilized” to express concepts, shows that in its entirety it may be broken down into these two categories. Cardinal numbers and words like “every,” “any,” “some,” and “there exists” do not fall into these two classes and play the role of quantifiers in natural language; they permit general, partial, and particular statements to be distinguished from one another. At the same time, the subjects (expressed by the so-called terms of languages based on the predicate calculus) and predicates function as the names for concepts. The latter function thus in the most literal way, whereas the former, if they are variable, “run though” certain “object domains” that serve as the extensions of concepts; if they are constants, they behave as proper nouns designating specific objects from these object domains. Thus, predicates are the intension of concepts, whereas the classes of objects for which these predicates are true represent the extensions. As for terms, they may either be generic names for arbitrary “representatives” of certain concepts or names for specific representatives. In other words, all the problems of formal logic that are associated with the theory of concepts prove to be part of predicate calculus. Thus, the law of inverse relations proves to be a paraphrase of the tautology (identically true formula) of prepositional calculus A & B ⊃ ˥A (where & is the conjunction sign and ⊃ the implication sign) or its generalization in predicate logic, ∀xC(x) ⊃ C (x), (where ∀ is the universal quantifier).


Gorskii, D. P. Voprosy abstraktsii i obrazovanie poniatii. Moscow, 1961.
Kursanov, G. A. Dialekticheskii materializm o poniatii. Moscow, 1963.
Arsen’ev, A. S., V. S. Bibler, and B. M. Kedrov. Analiz razvivaiushchegosia poniatiia. Moscow, 1967.
Voishvillo, E. K. Poniatie. Moscow, 1967.
Kopnin, P. V. Dialektika kak logika i teoriia poznaniia. Moscow, 1973.
The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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